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Getting rid of Maliki won't solve Iraq's crisis

- June 17, 2014

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki talks during an interview with the Associated Press in Baghdad on Dec. 3, 2011.  (Hadi Mizban/AP)
Two articles of faith seem to dominate proposed cures for Iraq’s ongoing crisis: Getting rid of Maliki and ensuring more Sunni inclusion. At first glance these measures seem intuitively and self-evidently necessary, but the woeful state of Iraqi politics and the magnitude of the threats now facing the country mean that, no matter how pleasing these proposals may be to our sensibilities, they are nevertheless impractical solutions – at least for the moment.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has overseen the entrenchment and exacerbation, though not necessarily the creation, of the very worst aspects of post-2003 Iraq. From the corruption that oils every cog in Iraq’s creaky machinery of state to the cynical use of identity politics to the callous reliance on violent crises in times of political trouble, the list goes on. Indeed, the army’s collapse in Mosul was symptomatic of the state’s signature style of mismanagement and its lack of direction, purpose and national commitment. As has been repeated ad nauseam, Maliki has tried to centralize power, neutralize Iraq’s budding political institutions, politicize the judiciary and the armed forces in pursuit of his own political ends and, in the process, has marginalized opponents and alienated as broad a swath of Iraq’s parasitic and incompetent political classes as possible.
As Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has recently shown, Maliki’s “scorecard” after eight years in the prime minister’s office is dismal. According to Cordesman, Iraq (as of May) has the lowest per capita income of any Gulf state barring Yemen, and is ranked by the World Bank as the most corrupt country in the region excepting Yemen and Libya. And so the abysmal list continues with regards to numerous indicators which point to a consistently miserable lot for average Iraqis.
As for the always-contentious issue of Sunni inclusion, Maliki’s eight years in power have widened what was already a yawning divide between Sunnis and Shiites. From utilizing de-Baathification as a political tool to the unconstitutional way in which calls for the formation of federal regions was dealt with to his worrying relationship with and use of the armed forces to the blundered handling of the Sunni protest movement, again, the list goes on. Over the past eight years, Maliki and his allies dealt with several crises and turning points in a manner that allowed quandary to morph into quagmire.
Clearly there is little need to expend further ink elaborating the faults of Maliki’s tenure – particularly his second term in office. Which brings us back to the common prescription to today’s crisis; namely, getting rid of Maliki and reaching out to Sunnis. While both are necessary at some point, suggesting them as a magic wand for the current crisis is impractical.
First, although this will be hard to believe for anyone outside the prime minister’s support base, Maliki commands considerable popularity. Indeed, the most recent elections clearly showed that he is the least unpopular Iraqi politician, with more than 720,000 personal votes and by far the largest parliamentary bloc. Even more baffling to the uninitiated, the current crisis is likely to have augmented his popularity, a result of existential fears if for no other reason.
Secondly, centralization of power and authoritarian tendencies coupled with the benefits of a long incumbency present practical obstacles to Maliki’s removal. There are parts of the Iraqi state that are directly linked to him and vice-versa, making a sudden resignation all the more unlikely. Linked to Maliki is a complex web of institutional and personal interests spanning the breadth and depth of the Iraqi state and Iraqi politics. In short, absent intense and sustained external pressure or a coup, getting rid of Maliki is not the same as, for example, impeaching a U.S. president. The most effective candidate for applying external pressure is Iran, yet it is Iranian pressure for a Maliki exit that is least likely to be forthcoming: Iran seems uninterested in getting involved in the business of Iraqi political personalities, as long as both the Iraqi state and Shiite political cohesion continue to hold. In other words, were Iran to push for Maliki’s exit, it would essentially have to pursue the unlikely policy of initiating an internal political Shiite rebellion against Maliki.
Thirdly, the knee-jerk reaction of highlighting the need to reach out to Sunnis in response to the current crisis is rather naive. Given the oceanic depths of Sunni alienation from Maliki, and all the damage that has been done over the years, what would an attempt by the prime minister to reach out to Sunnis even look like? What could he possibly say or do to engender trust from a group that views him in ways not dissimilar from how a critical mass of Shiites viewed Saddam Hussein? Furthermore, Sunni marginalization, while undoubtedly the result of Shiite-centric politicians and policies, has not been made any better by Sunnis themselves. From the beginning, there was a considerable body of Sunni opinion that was implacably opposed to the post-2003 order. As one scholar put it recently, “The most significant factor behind Iraq’s problems has been the inability of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and its Sunni neighbors to come to terms with a government in which the Shi’as … hold the leading role.” Indeed, in addition to the activities of ISIS, a good part of the current crisis is a rebellion against not just Maliki but the entire post-2003 political order.
Such attitudes have sustained considerable latent support for insurgency and will likely extend to any of Maliki’s realistic replacements from the current crop of politicians. Furthermore, an additional problem with calls for greater Sunni inclusion lies with the caliber of Sunni politicians, who have proven themselves to be no less venal, self-interested and morally bankrupt than their Shiite counterparts. This raises broader questions about whether a change of prime minister or the formation of another “national unity government” is a solution or simply akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. There are also serious questions about the representativeness of “Sunni representatives” – especially if they accept working with Maliki and are thus excommunicated with the charge of being “Maliki Sunnis.”
Too many Sunnis and too many Sunni political actors have yet to resolve the profound dilemmas presented by regime change in 2003, including issues relating to the legacies of the past and Sunnis’ place in the new Iraq. In resolving these issues they have been helped neither by their own political leaders nor by the Arab world’s antagonistic stance toward the new Iraq nor by their own predisposition to reject the post-2003 order. Needless to say, least helpful of all have been Iraq’s Shiite political actors who have done precious little to avoid validating what may once have been irrational suspicions. In essence, many Sunni Arab Iraqis have yet to find the balance between the pursuit of their political ideals and the need to accept new realities. The counterproductive effect of this can be seen in, for example, the issue of sectarian balance: Given the widespread Sunni rejection, even amongst Sunni politicians, of the idea that they are a numerical minority, their expectations regarding sectarian balance are neither realistic nor can they be met. The contention surrounding demographics plays an equally distorting role in expectations regarding elections and elite bargaining positions.
Finally, given the scale of the current threat, an argument can be made for delaying any attempt at structural change until the crisis has subsided to manageable proportions. The inflamed fears and divisions that recent events have provoked should not be tested with additional political upheaval at the center. The Iraqi state faces an existential crisis that needs to be confronted militarily and then solved politically. What is at stake is not just Maliki but the Iraqi state and regional stability; judging by what happened the last time the Iraqi state collapsed 11 years ago, I for one think it best to avoid a repeat.
One hopes that once the immediate storm has passed, a much-needed bold restructuring of Iraqi politics will be initiated; one that perhaps includes agreeing to work toward Kurdish independence (particularly given that the Kirkuk issue has now been “solved”), formulating a new, more legitimate and more coherent constitution that provides for, amongst other things, meaningful avenues for decentralization, and generally restarting the state-building process with the vision and commitment necessary for such an undertaking. But alas, the past 11 years have given Iraqis no reason to expect their political leaders to be up to the task. For now, the debate about what needs to be done with Iraq’s self-destructive politics should perhaps be delayed until the more immediate threats presented by this crisis have been addressed.
Fanar Haddad is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He has published widely on identity, identity politics and modern Iraqi social history. He is author of “Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity” (London: Hurst & Co/New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).